Fresh Start | Beaufort County Now | ECU delivers healthy food program to underserved communities in the east

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    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of ECU News Services. The authors of this post are Natalie Sayewich and Rob Spahr.

Dr. Lauren Sastre, an assistant professor and registered dietitian in ECU’s College of Allied Health Sciences, helps explain healthy food options to Fresh Start program participants in Elizabeth City. (Photos by Rhett Butler)

    A van towing a trailer pulls in front of a church in Elizabeth City, an eastern North Carolina community challenged by health disparities, limited access to health care providers, and insufficient healthy food options.

    Inside the trailer are bags filled with fresh vegetables donated from local farmers, tools for cooking healthy meals and free giveaways. On the outside of the trailer, there is an East Carolina University logo and the university's motto, "servire: To Serve."

    The van was on location as part of the Fresh Start program, hosted by ECU's College of Allied Health Sciences' Department of Nutrition Sciences, that brings healthy food ingredients to underserved communities and shows uninsured patients with Type 2 diabetes how to prepare the ingredients to maximize their nutritional value.

    The program - funded through a $365,000 grant from The Duke Endowment - is an interprofessional collaboration across the university's graduate and undergraduate programs, along with support from some key nonprofit organizations and grant funding, to help uninsured individuals with diabetes in eastern North Carolina find the resources and build skills to better manage their health.

    Through a partnership with the Society of St. Andrew, ECU students help harvest large quantities of produce donated by generous farmers throughout eastern North Carolina. Then, the ingredients - already popular and familiar to southern cooks - are packed into the ECU Health Sciences servire program van and trailer, brought to partner clinics and integrated into healthful recipes that are shared with the diabetic patients during twice monthly cooking events in Nags Head and Elizabeth City.

    In collaborations with North Carolina Association of Free & Charitable Clinics, the Fresh Start program takes a three-pronged approached toward improving the health status of the program's patients, as each participant receives:

  • One-on-one health coaching over the phone
  • Access to group classes and hands-on educational activities
  • Bags of fresh produce at the completion of every meeting

    "Giving people healthy ingredients is good, but if they don't know how to prepare it, you're only going so far. And health coaching is great, but you can only do so much over the phone," said Dr. Lauren Sastre, assistant professor and registered dietitian in ECU's College of Allied Health Sciences, who received the funding through The Duke Endowment for the project. "So, what I think is most unique about our program is not the individual pieces, people have done those pieces before. It's how those pieces connect, and that people are getting all three, because they complement each other. Now they know what to do, they have the support to do it and they have the resources if they are a lower income household."

    While the program is currently only visiting two communities, Sastre said it is expected to add additional rural communities in eastern and western North Carolina over the next two years.

    Most of the ECU students involved in the program are pre-med, pre-physical therapy or considering another kind of health care career in the future. Through this program, they are learning how to counsel patients and how to properly chart those patients. They are also taking part in cultural trainings and other learning opportunities on how to support under-resourced patients.

    "How do you help a patient when they can't just go out and buy everything that we want to suggest they eat? That is what our students are learning," Sastre said. "And research shows that when health care-oriented students are exposed to populations like this, they are more likely to take care of them in the future."

    One student who fits that mold is Bunn native Brandon Stroud, a first-year master of public health student pursuing a focus in Community Health and Health Behavior.

    "I'm from eastern North Carolina, so I have seen first-hand some of the health disparities here and I to be able to make a difference. I didn't want to be a typical physician, so I thought nutrition was one of the ways I could help address those issues," said Stroud, who serves as the program's assistant director. "So, this program been wonderful. We've heard some great stories from people in the group classes just talking about how it has positively impacted their life and how they have been losing weight, been being more active and eating more fruits and vegetables. All of the things we're trying to get them to do."

    South Mills resident Danny Ballweg took part in other nutritional programs like Fresh Start previously, including a health retreat in Virginia. However, the 65-year-old said the fact ECU's faculty and students are bringing the program to communities in need made the Fresh Start program more enjoyable.

    "If the other programs were a 10 - this is a 10 plus," Ballweg said. "For them to go out into the community and have the opportunity to do hands-on learning with individuals, and to help them, I think that is great. Any events that teach these young adults to go out in the community and learn through helping others, is what truly sticks - not only in their mind, but in their heart."
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